During a recent visit to Turrialba, Costa Rica, I had the pleasure of visiting with Massi Devoto Chen, co-owner of Explornatura, an adventure company based in the beautiful central valley Cartago province. We talked about a variety of topics including travel & tourism, sustainability, and Massi’s love for his native Costa Rica.
Q: Can you please tell me about the history of Explornatura and how the company has evolved?
A: Explornatura was established in 1999 as a custom itinerary adventure company. Although I was new to the tourism industry, I had experience with adventure sports such as white water rafting, rock climbing, and hiking. When I started the company with my two business partners, our operation was very small. It allowed us to spend time with our clients and develop long-term relationships. Many of our clients have been returning for years.
We are a year-round company, so we maintain an office presence even during slower periods. Although we have continued the private adventure and custom itineraries for groups, we eventually started to offer outings for individuals. Everything we do is amongst nature.
We knew that adventure and nature were a good combination, but we now include culture. The surrounding rural communities have a lot to offer and a lot to teach. We try to always mix the three aspects of our company so that our clients can experience nature and all that the local communities have to offer (i.e. cooking). We now describe Explornatura as an Adventure, Nature, and Culture company.
The experience of being in Costa Rica and to visit rural communities has a big impact on visitors. They see that the people living here enjoy their lives despite some not having many of the luxuries of other countries. They are very happy.
Q: Why did you start Explornatura in Turrialba?
A: I often speak to students, and I tell them that your first mistake can always become a good story. Our first mistake was to start the company in Turrialba. (laughter). It is a well-kept secret. But the access to rivers, mountains, and other adventure and cultural areas makes it an ideal location. In one specific area of Turrialba, we have over 600 species of birds. I always suggest that tourists try to visit at least three destinations when coming to Costa Rica. This will allow you to get an appreciation for the coasts, the mountains, and the national parks. Try to combine adventure and relaxation for the full experience.
Q: Tourism is a very competitive industry. Can you talk about your marketing initiatives?
A: Most of our business comes through tourism wholesalers, hotels, and tour operators. People prefer to book an entire itinerary through a travel agency vs. purchasing directly from Explornatura. The wholesalers know about us through trade shows and recommendations from past clients. We do receive direct bookings through our website.
Q: Can you give me an example of the type of trade shows you participate in?
A: We attend World Travel Market in London. We also attend Fitur which is an international tourism fair in Spain. Plus the Costa Rica government hosts seminars in different parts of Europe. We also use social media. Facebook is very big in Costa Rica.
Q: Does Explornatura get involved in other types of activities where your planning skills can also be applied?
A: Yes. Explornatura organizes sport events as a contractor to the owners of the events. We are involved with an annual mountain bike race with 500 participants. The Ruta de los Conquistadores navigates Costa Rica from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Explornatura manages hotels, transportation, meals, activities for the bikers and their families, and concierge services. The event takes place over three days, and Turrialba is one of the stops. This is a good fit for us because we are like a Destination Management Company, plus we understand adventure sports.
Q: Is the Ruta de los Conquistadores a profitable event for the planners and vendors?
A: It is a for-profit event. It’s sponsored by the Costa Rica government because it brings many people and media to Costa Rica. To put it in perspective, the average person spends $1,315 USD when they visit Costa Rica. The bike race brings in double.
Q: What differentiates Explornatura from other adventure sport companies?
A: I respect all the other companies that provide similar services. Our guides have full benefits and insurance, so they are not random hires. They also have insurance coverage when practicing adventures sports on their own. The majority of our trips are 12 people or less. The guides allow them to relax and get away from the stress and schedule structure they have at home. We are not in a hurry. We do not cut corners with respect to safety. Our guides have certifications for first-aid, CPR, white water rescue, mountain rescue, and vertical rock training. We also send a safety kayaker and a designated photographer on all trips. Plus, the owners of Explornatura are adventure people. We are all about long-term relationships. We want our customers to return multiple times.
Q: Do you remember your very first customer?
A: Yes! Steve Navarro was our very first client in 1999. We arranged a white water rafting trip for him and a friend. Steve has actually returned twice, and will join us next year for Explornatura’s 20th anniversary celebration. Steve did not find out until many years later that he was our first client. (laughter).
I love to promote my country, and nobody has to pay me for that.”
Q: I understand that you are very involved in an event called Expotur. Can you please talk about the event and its importance to Costa Rica and the tourism industry?
A: I am the President of Expotur. However, my involvement is completely separate from Explornatura. Expotur is a very important tourism travel mart for Costa Rica and the region. In fact, it is one of the most relevant in all of Latin America. Expotur provides great visibility on a national and international level for those in the tourism industry. For some companies, particularly micro and small businesses, it is the only opportunity to promote themselves and negotiate face-to-face with at least 200 international buyers.
Q: Is Expotur its own organization, or is there a backing organization?
A: Expotur is organized through The Costa Rica Association of Professionals in Tourism (ACOPROT). Representatives from ACOPROT make promotional trips in advance of Expotur to generate interest from business representatives from the United States and Europe. ACOPROT is a professional association with 800 members and 14 full-time employees. The Association is for people who graduate from college with a Tourism degree, or have at least 5 years of experience in the tourism industry. These are active members who help to promote the Association’s mission which includes improving the quality of professionals in tourism in Costa Rica, scientific research and education, and development and promotion of the country. All within a framework of ethics.
Q: What other organizations are important to you?
A: I am president of the Costa Rican tourism association, I am president of the Agency for Commercial Growth & Development for Turrialba and Jimenez. I am a tourism advisor to the local government in Turrialba. They look to me for advice with respect to new programs and ways to balance programs to benefit the residents and can also be enjoyed by tourists. I am also on the board of a couple of other small organizations.
In the U.S. they measure success based on money. Some people here have the feeling that making money is bad. It goes back to our religion culture, and our culture that if you get paid, there is no glory in what you’re doing because you get paid. It’s still like this in small communities. So I try to advise them that making money is needed to buy food, medicine, children’s education, clothing, and other basic necessities. What is bad is making money by taking advantage of people.
Q: Outside of Explornatura, you are very involved in a variety of activities. How do you find the time to speak to students and serve on boards of multiple tourism organizations?
A: First of all, I only sleep 5-6 hours per night. I’ve been doing it for many years, so I’m used to it. Second, I have really good assistants. Lately, I have learned not to micro manage (laughter) and I understand that people have other ways to complete tasks.
Q: Can you talk about sustainability?
A: When we talk about sustainability, we talk about a table with 3 legs: cultural/social sustainability, economical sustainability, and environmental sustainability. The three of them support the table because the legs are exactly the same. If you don’t put the three legs in balance, you don’t have a stable table. I try to emphasize that it’s important to create products and services that allow you to make a living, make it good for the community, allow for economical return, and preserve the environment. If you’re going to cut the tree, have a plan for how that tree can help you make money. Don’t just cut the tree.
Q: Do you have an interest in politics?
A: It’s not my thing. However, I believe in public-private partnerships and I do my best to improve relationships between the two sectors. I love to promote my country, and nobody has to pay me for that.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: I like to travel, I like to walk in the forest for my personal expeditions, and I enjoy spending time with my family. I’m now at a point where I’m trying to get more balance in my life.
Q: You are born and raised in Costa Rica. You know a lot of people. Is there anything that the community does not know about you?
A: My mother is from Panama, my father is from Italy, and my great grandparents on my mother’s side are from China and Jamaica. I’m the first generation of my family to be born in Costa Rica. Prior to starting Explornatura, I was in the seafood industry… on the dark side. (laughter). I just try to do my part.
To learn more about Explornatura, please visit their website.